Thursday, 9 December 2010

SOS - save our statues

They make unlikely bedfellows, a left leaning Member of Parliament and a comedian with a passion for ex-Tory Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher. Nevertheless the statues of Bessie Braddock and Ken Dodd were both drawing admiring glances and plenty of “let’s have our photo taken” moments from Liverpool Lime Street passengers, with Maureen Holt saying “it’s fantastic when you get off the train and see them, as it’s our heritage.”

All of which brings a smile from their sculptor Tom Murphy, standing only yards away from the life-size bronze statues of two of Liverpool’s iconic characters that were erected last year, bringing to eighteen the number of his sculptures on public display across the North-West.

When you consider that they include the one of John Lennon at the airport, and those of Bill Shankly at Anfield and goal scoring legend Dixie Dean at Goodison Park then it’s perhaps not too surprising that Murphy, born in 1949, was voted in at 76 in the top hundred Greatest Merseysiders by Radio Merseyside listeners and Liverpool Echo readers for his outstanding contribution to the area.

Passers by are happy to offer an opinion, with Bridget Muskar saying she “likes the John Lennon one because the casualness of it captures the singers personality.” Big football fan Jim Gallagher agrees but has little doubt about the ones that bring the most pleasure, and certainly attention, saying; “Shankly’s and Dixie Dean’s are revered. They are shrines and many families use them at important moments including funerals. “

“It’s heartwarming if the public like your work as it shows that sculpture is working in the way it was intended as the public will make clear if they don’t like it. Very quickly there will be suggestions it should be taken down. This was certainly the case at Southampton Football Club with the Ted Bates one,” said Murphy.

The £112,000 statue of the ex-Saints player and manager was erected on St Patrick’s Day 2007. Within a week it had been pulled down after fans bitterly complained it looked nothing like the man who spent sixty years at the club.  A year later a new statue, costing £120,000, was put up in its place.

“It must have been heartbreaking for the original sculptor, as it would have taken at least eighteen months to complete. I always dread the first few weeks after a new piece goes up. What you want to hear is nothing. Silence really is golden. The work has to blend in with the space where it’s located, because every object has an affect on the area around it. It also needs to be a good design, comply with health and safety regulations, include the spirit of the artist, satisfy the commissioning bodies and provide a good likeness of the subject” says Murphy, whose big break came fourteen years ago when his 7’ 6” John Lennon sculpture was seen by a Littlewoods representative. Commissioned to sculpt bronze size statues of the Moores brothers for the Church Street shopping area in the city, Murphy’s subsequent works have gone to become an important part of the local landscape.

The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association [PMSA] believes there are 10,000 public monuments and sculptures nationally. Many commemorate an influential person or a historical event, such as is the case with the Lancashire Fusiliers South African War Memorial in Bury of a soldier. Originally erected in 1905 this lists those who died in the Boer war between 1900-1902.

In nearby Manchester on Brazenose Street the Abraham Lincoln statue commemorates the life of a man who did much to end slavery in the USA. Originally bound for London the Manchester Evening News was spurred into action in 1918 when it appeared that it might be presented to Liverpool, the newspaper winning out by rather grandiosely claiming “Manchester’s second to none honourable war record in the fight for freedom in the [just ended] European War, and its leading position in the art world outside London’ made it the perfect place for Lincoln. Only later, during its unveiling the following year, was it argued that Manchester was a suitable location due to the support generated amongst the cities spinners for the Northern States during the American Civil War of the 1860s.

Over in Leeds many of its finest statues are located close to each other on City Square, just next to the train station. There’s the Black Prince on horseback, a Thomas Brock bronze statue of Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales made famous for his victories over the French in the 14th century. A Batley born 18th century theologian Joseph Priestley, credited with discovering oxygen, stands nearby, as do statutes of other local worthies such as James Watt and Dr Walter Hook. 

As an ancient city York, not surprisingly, can also boast some fine statues including one of Constantine the Great, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, which is situated next to York Minster.  Meanwhile the marble head of a much earlier statue, believed to date back to around 306AD when Constantine was in power, can be seen on display in the Yorkshire Museum.  

In Hull, birthplace of aviator Amy Johnson she’s commemorated with a statue in Prospect Street, whilst in Queen’s Gardens there’s the William Wilberforce Memorial commemorating the local mans role in the fight to abolish the slave trade.

All remain well cared for but others are not so fortunate.  This is because so few are listed, and as such protected. The figure of 10,000 is an estimate with even large counties such as Yorkshire lacking a database on what are, in essence, its regional treasures. The PMSA is always looking for volunteers, particularly photographers, to help record what’s around and are urging anyone who sees a monument or statue in need of some tender loving care to contact a conservation officer at their local council.

Having lost most of our ancient statues, when Henry the Eighth ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century, the PMSA is concerned that more modern statues are now fast disappearing. According to Ian Leith “many, especially those from the 1950s, are being stolen to order. We are disappointed that the police often seem reluctant to pursue those involved when they argue that the thefts are only for the value of the bronze.  Meanwhile many others have been taken down by councils and put into storage where they often remain for decades.”

In respect of the latter point that has certainly been the case with the one of Hugh Stowell Brown, a nineteenth century preacher and social reformer in Liverpool. The brother of national Manx poet Thomas Edward Brown, he began his simple, direct and humorous preaching at Myrtle Street Chapel in 1847 and had increased membership numbers from 239 to 849 by the time of his death in 1886. One of his greatest achievements was the creation of a ‘Workman’s Bank’ to encourage people to put aside money, that might otherwise be used for alcohol, for periods of unemployment, illness and eventual old age. Brown later became President of the Great Britain Baptist Union and Liverpool Branch of the Peace Society as well as the Chairman of the Liverpool Seamen’s Friendly Society.

So revered was Brown by the poor that even though his funeral took place on a working day ten thousand people turned out. Determined he wouldn’t be forgotten funds were raised for a statue, and when it was unveiled outside his church in 1889 he became one of only three Liverpool clergymen to receive such an honour. After Myrtle Street was demolished the statue was moved to the corner of Princes Road/Avenue in 1954, from where it was toppled by rioters in 1981 that wrongly believed he had been a slave-owner.

Left to rot on its back in the stable yard at Croxteth Hall the statue of Hugh Stowell Brown has in the last few weeks been put into a box by Liverpool Council for safe keeping. Now a retired Isle of Man head teacher is hoping to raise the £20,000 needed to restore it to its former glory and have it, once again, put on display. Dollin Kelly is confident that “a number of societies and individuals on the island will be willing to contribute as Hugh Stowell Brown is one of our best ever exports and should be commemorated in the city where he did so much good.”

Tom Murphy is fully behind Kelly in his aims saying “it would be great if he succeeds in having the statue re-erected. These are our national treasures and should be protected.

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